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Monday, June 28, 2010

Opinion: Two Sanctioning Bodies at a Crossroads

You’d think it impossible, but the IZOD IndyCar Series nearly upstaged NASCAR’s best and brightest this past weekend at New Hampshire Motor Speedway without even staging a race. And although they didn’t quite pull it off, they certainly did their damnedest.

For one, Danica Patrick made her much-discussed return to the Nationwide Series. That wasn’t too successful, as an early-race accident put her off of the lead lap for the final 190 out of 200 laps, rendering her goal of a top-15 impossible. But Patrick did begin to grasp some things by the end of the event, and did manage to score her best career stock car finish (let’s ignore the fact that it was 30th).

The next day, the sport’s top names – CEO Randy Bernard, top driver Dario Franchitti, and SMI CEO/track mogul Bruton Smith (the man whose purchase of NHMS has greatly upgraded the facility) joined track promoter Jerry Gappens and New Hampshire governor John Lynch to announce next year’s return of the series to Loudon.

The press conference lasted nearly 30 minutes, and touched on topics from NHMS’ potential loss of a Sprint Cup race date (especially if the IndyCar event is a great success) to other potential additions to next year’s IndyCar schedule, especially other SMI tracks like Las Vegas, Atlanta, and Charlotte.

Dario wheeled his No. 10 Target Dallara-Honda out on the track for a few hot laps in between the national anthem and starting command for the Cup race, and although TNT’s cameras didn’t catch it, thousands of longtime NHMS ticketholders sure did. IndyCar has come a long way from where it was in 1998, the final year that NHMS hosted an open-wheel event, which was won by Tony Stewart (before he was Tony Stewart).

Granted, NASCAR sure gave IndyCar some help in the interest department as the race soldiered on. The massive gap between cautions, over 200 laps, had some taking to their Twitter accounts and praying for debris cautions. But in perhaps the greatest proof ever of the theory of relativity, the race that seemed to drag on was actually on pace to tie or eclipse the record for fastest race ever at NHMS until Juan Pablo Montoya crashed out.

All the discussion over the past few weeks about drivers lacking respect for one another vanished. Listening to Stewart apologize for getting into Kurt Busch in the media center, in a last lap battle that Busch called “fun” no less, suggested that such arguments had lost some of their bite.

And all of the hype surrounding Joe Gibbs Racing over the past month or so vanished as Kyle Busch fell back at the end, Denny Hamlin spent time off the lead lap, and defending race winner Joey Logano was nowhere to be found. Meanwhile, those who wondered if Jimmie Johnson had finally lost a step were treated to a nice helping of their own words as he fought back from a poor early pit stop for the victory.

This brings NASCAR back to Daytona for its Independence Day spectacular, and at a perfect time – as the series begins to limp from the loss of new and interesting storylines, and the re-emergence of the same old song and dance up front.

IndyCar, on the other hand, heads into the second half of its season at Watkins Glen with more momentum than it’s ever had since reunification in 2008. Promoters are fighting to put their events on its schedule, chassis manufacturers are fighting to put their cars on track for 2012, and best of all, the drivers are fighting for three distinct championships, with all still very up in the air.

Next weekend’s events will be very interesting to see where momentum takes both niches of motorsport. Will NASCAR produce a story for the ages coming out of Daytona, or will IndyCar continue to nibble away at the big picture and increase its market share? We can only watch and find out.

IndyCar Returns to New Hampshire in 2011

The IZOD IndyCar Series will return to the New Hampshire Motor Speedway on the weekend of July 30-31, 2011, according to an announcement made at the track yesterday.

IndyCar CEO Randy Bernard, Speedway Motorsports chairman Bruton Smith, NHMS promoter Jerry Gappens, 2010 Indianapolis 500 winner Dario Franchitti, and New Hampshire governor John Lynch were on hand to make the announcement.

Franchitti later performed a handful of demonstration laps on the track for fans on hand to watch the day's stock car race. Franchitti's team owner, Chip Ganassi, had a car driven by 2000 Indy winner Juan Pablo Montoya on the pole for that event.

Next year's event will mark the first NHMS IndyCar event under Smith's ownership and the first open-wheel event at the track since 1998, when Tony Stewart took the victory. It is also the fifth event on the schedule to receive a confirmed race date, taking place after Long Beach (April 17), Sao Paulo (May 1), and Indianapolis (May 29), and before Baltimore (August 7) in the season. During the press conference, Smith also referred to an event in Kentucky on Labor Day weekend, suggesting that it will retain its place on the schedule next year.

Other events with existing race contracts include St. Petersburg, Iowa, Infineon, and Barber. Events rumored to return to the schedule include Phoenix, Las Vegas (an SMI track), Milwaukee, Cleveland, Houston, and Detroit. New events in Quebec City and Qingdao, China, have also been discussed.

Watch the entire press conference here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aeuhH0xCTgE

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Hunter-Reay Returns To Glen

Ryan Hunter-Reay has confirmed on his Twitter account that he will be competing for Andretti Autosport in the Camping World Grand Prix of the Glen on July 4:

Also thrilled to get the news I'll be racing at the Glen! Not many details yet, at least I know I'll be driving.Thx Michael! @FollowAndretti

Hunter-Reay's first IZOD IndyCar Series win came at Watkins Glen in 2008, when he held off Darren Manning for the victory. Hunter-Reay currently sits seventh in series points, with one win, coming at the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach.

Hunter-Reay's car carried sponsorship from IZOD in the first handful of races this season. The American ethanol industry, Hunter-Reay's sponsor at the Glen when he won two years ago, backed the team at Iowa. Other companies to appear on the car thus far this year include IES, Snapple, and Virgin Mobile.

The announcement also confirms that Adam Carroll will be a teammate of, and not a replacement for, Hunter-Reay in an Andretti Autosport car. Carroll will drive the No. 27 Boost Mobile Dallara-Honda in a limited schedule from Watkins Glen onward.

Tracy in for Watkins Glen

Paul Tracy will become the third driver to replace Mike Conway in the No. 24 Dreyer & Reinbold Racing Dallara-Honda in the July 4 Camping World Grand Prix at the Glen. Tracy succeeds Tomas Scheckter (Texas) and Graham Rahal (Iowa) in driving the car after Conway's Indianapolis 500 incident.

Tracy has not yet started an event this season, having failed to qualify his KV Racing Technology car for the Indianapolis 500 in some classic Bump Day drama. It is unknown whether Tracy's Indy sponsor, Geico, will help support his Watkins Glen endeavor. Tracy will return to KV for the series' Canadian races, meaning DRR may have a fourth driver in the No. 24 for those two events.

Other than the revolving door of race car drivers in the No. 24, this season has been solid for DRR. New addition Justin Wilson has put their No. 22 car eighth in points, on the strength of second-place finishes at St. Petersburg and Long Beach. Conway had three top-10s before his injury. Scheckter and Ana Beatriz helped qualify all four DRR cars for the Indy 500 on Pole Day, and each has posted respectable results for the team. Three of the four DRR cars actually led laps in this year's 500, by far a team best and a huge difference from 2009's struggles.

Some may wonder what the signing of Tracy means for Rahal, who has struggled to find rides all year due to a lack of sponsorship. But one of the series' best American drivers may not be out of luck yet. DRR has discussed fielding its No. 23 for Rahal at Watkins Glen, and he may be a lock to return to the car for the series' Canadian rounds, owing to his track experience in Champ Car and IndyCar.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

IndyCar Race Review: Iowa Corn Indy 250

Tony Kanaan ended a 34-race winless drought and Michael Andretti won his second race of the season after a winless 2009 as the IZOD IndyCar Series finished its first oval segment of the 2010 season with today's Iowa Corn Indy 250.

It was the 15th career open-wheel win for Kanaan, his first since Richmond in 2008, and the first time that the Brazilian did not suffer a race-ending accident in an Iowa event. He led 62 laps, holding the point for the first time since Chicago last year.

It also marked the second race win at Iowa for Andretti Autosport, and their first since the inaugural event in 2007 with Dario Franchitti. However, neither Franchitti nor the other Andretti cars had quite the same amount of success as Kanaan; Franchitti's transmission gave out late in the race, dropping him to 18th, while the other three Andretti cars of Ryan Hunter-Reay (8th), Danica Patrick (10th), and Marco Andretti (15th) fell off the lead lap.

Helio Castroneves held the lead with as few as a dozen laps to go, but Kanaan positioned himself perfectly for the victory, conserving 11 of his 24 allotted overtake assists for the final 11 laps. Castroneves had nine assists remaining, but they were not enough; with each assist lasting about halfway around the 7/8 mile track, Kanaan could run with extra horsepower for about the entire final segment of the race.

Castroneves had encountered issues with Kanaan earlier in the race, coming very close to his countryman on pit road early in the race. Castroneves was stuck between Kanaan and Scott Dixon racing out of the pits, overcorrected to avoid Kanaan's left rear and careened into Dixon, giving both cars a little air. Kanaan also had a pit incident with Hunter-Reay as the American pulled into his pit.

E.J. Viso finished third, salvaging one solid finish for KV Racing Technology. Mario Moraes became a victim of Justin Wilson's turn three spin at the beginning of the event, eliminating one of the three KV cars before anybody could even get into a rhythm. Takuma Sato, in the lead Lotus-sponsored KV car, had a fantastic run going before trailing Alex Lloyd too closely into the turns on lap 177, losing the air off his car, and sliding up into the wall.

Iowa also featured support races that went all the way down the Road to Indy ladder. In Firestone Indy Lights, former Andretti driver Sebastien Saavedra held off his replacement, Martin Plowman, for the victory. Conor Daly led all 100 laps of the Star Mazda race for his fourth consecutive victory in that series, and Sage Karam (also driving for Andretti) won his third US Formula 2000 event of the season.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

IndyCar Race Preview: Iowa Corn Indy 250

First of all, a huge thank you to George Phillips over at Oil Pressure for the shout-out in his preview of this weekend's race. George's blog is one of the best and most insightful IndyCar blogs out there, and one of my personal favorites. Check out "Are Engine Failures Always a Bad Thing?" for an example of the high quality posts on the site.

Getting to the event at hand this weekend, the Iowa Corn Indy 250 will mark the fourth IZOD IndyCar Series event at the 7/8 mile Iowa Speedway. Chip Ganassi Racing's No. 10 Dallara-Honda has won the past two events, with Dan Wheldon taking the checkers in 2008 and Dario Franchitti last year. Points leader Franchitti, who also won the event in 2007, can use the weekend to open up a gap in points over second-place Will Power, whose only Iowa experience yielded a ninth-place finish. Meanwhile, teammate Scott Dixon has a solid average finish of 6.3 at the track with two top five finishes.

But Iowa has the potential to produce a surprise winner, even if it hasn't happened yet in the race's three-year history. In two races at the track, Hideki Mutoh has finishes of second and third place, respectively. His prowess at the track could lead to a bump for his Newman/Haas Racing team, as they are mired at 18th in points. But a strong finish for Mutoh, combined with some bad luck for his immediate leaders in points, could mathematically elevate him to as high as 12th.

While Ganassi usually takes the checkers, Andretti Autosport also knows its way around Iowa. Andretti cars finished 1-2 in 2007, had three drivers in the top six in 2008, and a best finish of third last year with Mutoh. Tony Kanaan led 48 laps last year before a crash took him out of the event, and Marco Andretti has challenged for the win at Iowa multiple times in the past. An Andretti car could feasibly end Ganassi's streak of wins at the track come Sunday.

It will also be interesting to see how a handful of drivers will approach the Iowa event this weekend. What will Ryan Hunter-Reay and Graham Rahal do with their one-week reprieves to get back in the series? Hunter-Reay has sponsorship from the American ethanol industry once again, a partnership that paid dividends in the past, and Rahal will replace the injured Mike Conway at Dreyer & Reinbold Racing. Both drivers will want solid finishes to secure rides as early as possible for Watkins Glen.

How will Simona de Silvestro handle her first race after the Texas wreck? This has nothing to do with the fact that de Silvestro was cleared to drive just a couple of days after the incident. A bad crash like that can alter a driver's psyche, and make them less willing to engage in daring maneuvers on the track. If de Silvestro begins to fear another fiery wreck - as most of us would - she might be slow on this, one of the trickier tracks in the IZOD IndyCar Series. It will be interesting to see how she runs this weekend.

Finally, will there be a breakout rookie at Iowa? Mutoh sure was in 2008, finishing second, but more often than not, rookies populate the bottom of the results. Iowa's unconventional length and layout prove tricky for the series' less experienced drivers and veterans alike, but the added caveat of Iowa being the only short track on the schedule could cause plenty of headaches for inexperienced drivers who haven't handled the Dallaras on smaller tracks. Expect about half of this year's rookie class to tear up some equipment.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Human Errors Led to de Silvestro Fire

When the Indy Racing League bought out the assets of the former Champ Car World Series before the 2008 season, the league gained nine new teams, a handful of races, and the rights to the entire history of championship car open-wheel racing in the United States. More importantly, they gained the rights to Champ Car's Holmatro Safety Team, a staple at every event and one of its most important assets as a racing series.

Since 2008, the Holmatro Safety Team has been a cherished part of the IZOD IndyCar Series, gaining a reputation for a generally stellar job at cleaning up crash sites and attending to drivers. However, when Simona de Silvestro crashed into the outside wall in the June 6 Firestone 550k at Texas Motor Speedway, the team took nearly a full minute to get her out of the burning car. This unacceptable response, though a rare and outstanding incident in years of service, led to a league-mandated inquiry into what went wrong.

Today's findings, released by the league and track safety coordinator Mike Yates, cited two key errors that led de Silvestro to languish in the car for so long. The first was a procedural error in the packing of the fire hose, leading to its malfunction. The second was a failure to take pressurized water canisters and Cold Fire to the car before utilizing the hose.

The failure of the safety crew to follow this protocol, as well as the malfunction of the hose, meant that de Silvestro was trapped alive in her burning vehicle. Eventually, Safety Team members had to physically rip her from the vehicle, not an easy task given the HANS device and other implements designed to keep a driver safe in the event of a major accident.

Luckily for the Swiss Rookie of the Year candidate, she only suffered a burned hand and was cleared to drive again the following day. Her helmet was also charred in the incident. This report by Indianapolis' WISH-TV showcases the remains of her helmet. (Thanks to 16th and Georgetown for the link.)

After the review, the Holmatro Safety Team will address all protocol in preparation for this weekend's Iowa Corn Indy 250. The way in which the fire hose is mounted will also be altered from this point forward. The Indy Racing League, IZOD IndyCar Series, and Holmatro Safety Team expect nothing less than another stellar weekend in Iowa, with the Safety Team handling any and all incidents with the same level of skill and professionalism as they have in almost every situation in the past.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Hunter-Reay, Rahal Set For Iowa

Ryan Hunter-Reay and Graham Rahal, two of the top American drivers in the IZOD IndyCar Series, were unsure two weeks ago of their respective statuses for this weekend's Iowa Corn Indy 250 at the Iowa Speedway.

Rahal competed in three races for Sarah Fisher Racing to start the season, and the Indianapolis 500 for his father's team, Rahal Letterman Racing, but neither he nor his father Bobby had the funding to go on afterwards. This was a far cry from last season's run with the former Newman/Haas/Lanigan Racing, where the young Rahal finished seventh in points with the lucrative (but since dissolved) McDonald's sponsorship. This year, he ranks 23rd after missing the events at Sao Paulo, Kansas, and Texas.

Hunter-Reay, meanwhile, was on his own after exhausting the funding allotted to him by his personal sponsor (and primary series backer) IZOD and Andretti Autosport. IZOD made the difficult decision to funnel the majority of its $10 million commitment into the IndyCar Series as a whole instead of a single driver, and the partnership has already begun to pay off. Unfortunately, it meant that Hunter-Reay would have to earn his way to stay in the series past the June 6 Firestone 550k; he put himself sixth in points and won the prestigious Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach.

Their perseverance has paid off in both cases, as both drivers will be racing this weekend, at the very least. Rahal takes over the No. 24 Dad's Root Beer Dallara-Honda for Dreyer & Reinbold Racing, while Hunter-Reay continues in the No. 37 Andretti Autosport Dallara-Honda with sponsorship from the United States ethanol industry.

Rahal benefits from the back and leg injuries to Mike Conway, sustained in a wreck with Hunter-Reay in the Indianapolis 500. Conway will miss three months due to the incident, which tore away parts of the catch fence and sprayed the track with debris. His Iowa paint scheme was custom designed by Hot Wheels, the official IndyCar die-cast manufacturer, and includes flames down the sides.

Hunter-Reay will continue a relationship with the Ethanol brand that he maintained from mid-2007 to 2008. He only competed in six events in the No. 17 Ethanol Dallara-Honda in 2007 for Rahal Letterman Racing, but his finishes were good enough to secure him series Rookie of the Year anyway. In 2008, he finished eighth in points, with his first career win at Watkins Glen the biggest highlight. It was this year, in fact, that Hunter-Reay signed his personal services contract with Izod.

After the 2008 season, however, IndyCar switched to Brazilian ethanol in a partnership with ApexBrasil. As such, the American ethanol sponsorship dollars dried up, and Hunter-Reay has been on a constant search for full-time backing ever since.

Hunter-Reay and Rahal then have two weeks to figure out their plans for the Camping World Grand Prix at the Glen. The race, broadcast on ABC, is one of the series' biggest television draws, and both drivers (especially Hunter-Reay, as a former winner only two years removed) will be looking to parlay strong finishes at Iowa into Glen deals.

For the Fans: New Site Revolutionizes Online Motorsports Viewing

For the American open-wheel racing fan, many a weekend is spent searching for a way to get a fix on open-wheel competition. Unlike stock cars, which run just about every weekend from February to November, open-wheel series usually run schedules of 20 or fewer races. The IZOD IndyCar Series only has 17 events, as does Formula 1, and the issue of time zones makes following the latter difficult as it holds its Asian rounds.

However, a new motorsports website built for the hardcore fan has come along to solve some of these problems for the American open-wheel fan. RaceFansTV.com, in its infancy, has already secured the rights to rebroadcast past events of some of the top open-wheel series in the world, including British and European Formula 3, the Star Mazda Championship, the Atlantic Championship, and classic open-wheel events, including Indianapolis 500s from the 1960s. It also broadcasts profiles of some of the top drivers in racing history, under the title of "Golden Age Documentaries."

The site was founded as a way to bring historic motorsports videos together in one place. It boasts dozens of new videos per week, fresh and frequently updated news from around the world, as well as an already vibrant online community with contests, polls, and message boards. It even has a section allowing fans to post their own reports, often times including striking fan-shot photography of some of the biggest events in the world. With only weeks online, the site is still primed to grow exponentially.

Among the names that older racing fans might recognize in classic open-wheel races are A.J. Foyt, Parnelli Jones, Eddie Sachs, and Rodger Ward. More greats are profiled in Golden Age Documentaries, including former Formula 1 stars Jack Brabham, Jim Clark, Juan Fangio, Jackie Stewart, and John Surtees. Budding racing historians can also check out the site's extensive wiki, containing information on just about any driver imaginable.

But don't let the "historic" tag fool you - many of the junior open-wheel series events that the site currently carries come from the past two years. Among the young talent that Race Fans TV users can watch are Formula 1 test pilots Valtteri Bottas, Brendon Hartley, and Daniel Ricciardo, Firestone Indy Lights drivers Philip Major, Jonathan Summerton, and Jean Karl Vernay, and IZOD IndyCar Series rookie Simona de Silvestro. Many more drivers whose exploits can currently be seen on the site will make names for themselves in those three series in the future. In fact, current IZOD IndyCar Series drivers Ryan Briscoe, Mike Conway, and Takuma Sato all made names for themselves by winning the championships in the branches of Formula 3 that Race Fans TV carries, making it a prime place to seek out the imported open-wheel talent of the future.

Of course, Race Fans TV is not exclusively an open-wheel site. It also boasts solid video libraries of sports car, touring car, rally, stock car, and motorcycle racing, giving it something for just about everybody. In fact, eight channels highlighting different niches within motorsports are running at all times, with five more niche channels and two on demand channels also established.

The site is free to experience, and free to join, but a $5 monthly subscription also opens up increases in video quality, decreases in advertisement, and the ability to watch a handful of videos on demand each month. Subscribers can also watch videos on demand any time within 24 hours of their most recent airing for free.

You can check out Race Fans TV's open wheel channel here, or the home page here.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Some Lessons Learned the Hard Way

Let me preface this piece by asserting a few facts: I am 19 years old. I go to one of the top communication schools in the United States with the end goal of becoming a professional motorsports journalist. My location may be somewhat far away from the IndyCar hub of Indianapolis, but I follow the sport religiously and have for years, and I feel like I'm pretty knowledgeable, both about the sport and my craft.

Of course, all the schooling in the world can't prepare you for situations in which things start to go wrong.

On Tuesday, I posted an opinion piece entitled "The Plight of the American Open-Wheel Racer," which was intended to be about Ryan Hunter-Reay's inability to secure a full-time IZOD IndyCar Series ride despite having done all the right things. In that column, I mentioned the possibility of him taking over the No. 24 car for Dreyer & Reinbold Racing, as lead driver Mike Conway is injured.

Those of you who read the original piece can probably figure out the mistake I made - I chalked up the wreck to "Conway being Conway." What I had meant to say was that Mike Conway is one of the more aggressive drivers in the sport, and one of the most willing to make daring on-track maneuvers, something that most will probably concede. And although I did not phrase it in a convincing way, I enjoy aggressive drivers like Conway who make the races more entertaining. "So-and-so being so-and-so" is a remark familiar to most in my area, as Boston baseball fans had to put up with the antics of Manny Ramirez for almost a decade.

Unfortunately, I meant what I meant, and I said what I said, and they turned out to be two different things. In this situation, the remark was factually inaccurate - Hunter-Reay was running out of gas, and although Conway looked to be creating a new lane at the bottom of the track if one looks at the instant replay without the context, it was not in all actuality the case.

Now, this mistake might have gone unnoticed on my part if not for an interesting email that I received as I was walking out of my house on Wednesday. It appears that, for all of the times that I wonder whether or not anybody reads what I write at all, somebody did... and the reader just so happened to be Mike Conway's manager, Mark Blundell.

1990s Formula 1 and CART fans alike probably remember Blundell as a talented driver in both disciplines. He scored three podium finishes and 32 points in his brief F1 career, scoring a point in every season in which he competed. In a five-year CART career, he won three races, all in 1997, and won Autosport Magazine's British Driver of the Year award that year. More recently, he has been involved in driver management, with Conway and Formula 1 test driver/DTM racer Gary Paffett his top two clients.

On a more personal note, Blundell was almost always my driver of choice in CART Fury, Midway's attempt to combine the excitement of CART racing and the physical impossibility of the NFL Blitz videogames into one. I would compare receiving his email to first meeting somebody you looked up to as a child by spilling a boiling pot of spaghetti sauce onto their new white suit. In other words, it's not quite the best way to introduce yourself.

Clearly I didn't pick the right time to bring up Conway's aggressive driving tendencies anyway, in effect kicking a man while he's down. Believe me, I do feel bad. It clearly was not the time to form an opinion, much less voice it, and unlike big names like Robin Miller, who get to interact with the big names on a weekly basis, I'm a kid who's just trying to get his foot in the door without pissing too many people off.

This time, things didn't exactly go to plan. You live and you learn.

But the most embarrassing part about this whole mess for me is that I clearly have no idea how many people read what I have to say, or who my readers are. My IndyCar stuff primarily comes from OpenWheelAmerica.com, but I also post my writing to BleacherReport.com, OnPitRow.com, PitRoadScene.com, and my own personal blog. It gets hard to keep track of where everything is going, who hears things where, and so on.

So from here, I regroup - I make my apologies, I lick my wounds, I move on. We all make mistakes. And in the end, things could have been a whole lot worse all the way around. Next time, I'll try to say what I mean.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Opinion: The Plight of the American Open-Wheel Racer

Saturday night's Firestone 550k was one of the best races for Andretti Autosport in recent memory. Andretti cars finished 2nd, 3rd, 6th, and 7th, one of their best performances as a team since the 1-2-3-4 sweep at St. Petersburg in 2005. Even better for Andretti, Danica Patrick, the all-world marketing superstar who has been struggling for much of the year, was the lead driver in that pack, and even briefly made the racing difficult for eventual winner Ryan Briscoe.

But Texas may prove to be bittersweet for Andretti, as it may be the final race for fourth driver Ryan Hunter-Reay. For the second consecutive year, Hunter-Reay's status as "the IZOD driver" will only take him about a third of the way through the IZOD IndyCar Series season, before he has to find another ride on his own. Andretti's already got another driver, Adam Carroll, lined up to drive for them in a few events.

Hunter-Reay has two weeks before the next race at Iowa to figure things out. He could get lucky and, for the second year in a row, become a replacement for a driver injured in the Indianapolis 500. Last year, he replaced Vitor Meira in A.J. Foyt's famed No. 14 car; this year, he could take over for Mike Conway at Dreyer & Reinbold Racing, depending on whether or not the team feels strongly about retaining the services of Tomas Scheckter... or if DRR officials feel like he was at fault for the Conway wreck, in which his car was used as the launching pad for the No. 24's trip into the wall.

Regardless, Hunter-Reay's continued plight - even with the commercial weight of the series' title sponsor behind him - says a lot about the state of American drivers in open wheel racing. Here's a driver who just won the biggest street race in the country, the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach. He was thisclose to winning the inauagural Sao Paulo Indy 300. Until being involved in the Conway incident, he had a solid Indy run going. He currently sits sixth in points and, with 11 races to make up 45 points, can make a solid run at this year's championship.

In other words, he's done almost everything right on track this year. So why does team owner Michael Andretti say that multiple sponsorship deals fell through for the budding star, even immediately after the Long Beach victory? Why does the Sprint Prepaid Group, through its Boost and Virgin Mobile brands, decide to throw most of its weight behind the already well-sponsored Patrick and the newcomer Carroll, only kicking a little support at Indy to their best bet to actually win a race?

If I'm Hunter-Reay, I'm starting to feel a little like Rodney Dangerfield right about now. My first thought when I wake up in the morning has to be, "I don't get no respect!"

Worse, he's not the only one. So many quality American drivers currently sit on the sidelines as their foreign counterparts trash racecars, all because they don't have the same kind of sponsorship. Ed Carpenter and Townsend Bell sit on the sidelines after strong Indy runs but mid-pack finishes. Buddy Rice - that's 2004 Indianapolis 500 champion Buddy Rice to you - and last year's Indy Lights champion, J.R. Hildebrand, have taken their talents to sports car racing. Meanwhile, four current IndyCar drivers have three or more DNFs in the seven races this season, and almost all of them are ride buyers of some sort. I won't name names, but you can probably figure it out easily enough.

Let's also call Paul Tracy an adopted American now that he lives in Vegas, and wonder aloud why the winningest active driver doesn't get a shot in more races, while his KV Racing teammates get involved in incidents like it's what they're paid to do.

I won't even bring up Graham Rahal with the list, though - he passed on the Boy Scouts ride with Dale Coyne Racing, and Alex Lloyd has been working wonders with it the past couple of races. Sure, Bill Pappas is no longer the engineer at DCR, which gave him some reservations about the quality of the cars, but surely Graham could have done just as much with that equipment as Lloyd. Newman/Haas Racing may have strung him along, but the rides were there, and he was a little too picky.

It's hard to make this argument without tapping into good old-fashioned American jingoism, but wasn't the Indy Racing League originally founded to give more American drivers a chance?

Hunter-Reay is a prime example of a driver that the old IRL would have served well, a Tony Stewart-type in that he has plenty of talent but no ride in which to show it off. Ever since losing the Ethanol sponsorship, his career has been unsteady, with plenty of uncertainty from week to week about where he'll be racing, who he'll be racing for, if he'll be racing at all.

The old IRL would have protected a driver like that. Now, not even race wins, a challenge for the championship, or, worst of all, the backing of the series' title sponsor can secure him a full-season contract. He's got two weeks to figure out how to get behind the wheel of a race car at Iowa, and I don't think anybody can come up with a reasonable explanation as to why.

I guess it all comes down to no respect.

Attention readers: The previous version of the column contained a poorly worded, easily misinterpreted remark about Mike Conway. That comment has since been removed, and I sincerely apologize to anybody who took it the wrong way. We all wish Mike Conway well, and look forward to him rejoining the series upon his recovery.

Sunday, June 6, 2010

Opinion: Putting the "Open" Back in "Open Wheel"

I don't think that I'm the only person to be excited about the ICONIC committee's decision to bring turbocharged 2.4 liter V6 engines to the IZOD IndyCar Series in 2012. The new engine will be a lot smaller and lighter than the current Honda powerplant, will maintain up to 700 horsepower, and will return turbos to major American open-wheel racing for the first time since Champ Car's demise. It should also allow other engine manufacturers, potentially including one of the Volkswagen Group's brands and a Lotus-Cosworth collaboration, to join the party. All of this is excellent news.

Now the ICONIC committee turns to chassis selection, where five industry leaders are currently fighting for the single contract to produce IndyCar chassis. Three of the companies - Dallara, Lola, and Swift - have built chassis before. BAT Engineering is comprised of three men who dominated the sport in the 1980s. Delta Wing is the pet project of some of the series' biggest owners.

The problem here is that three or fourth worthy chassis designers are going to go home, while one secures a contract, keeping IndyCar in its spec-design age. But why?

When CART reached its latest peak in the mid-to-late 1990s, when entry lists were full, big names were all around, and the IRL hadn't yet lured the top teams back to Indianapolis, there were three chassis manufacturers (and Roger Penske's in-house design) battling for supremacy, as there were four engine manufacturers competing to build the best engines. The competition may have driven up costs a bit, but that's what added to the prestige of the series - you had to beat everybody else on the track, not in the bidding.

Opening up chassis production to at least two manufacturers would increase competition, and hearken back to better days in the sport, before the nasty political split had scorched much of the open-wheel earth. The series could set a cost cap on chassis development and production in order to protect its owners from the potential of escalating costs, and perhaps adjust that cap on a yearly basis, as stick-and-ball sports do with player salary caps. If nothing else, multiple chassis would make the races far more visually interesting, in a way that multiple engine companies cannot.

Allowing multiple chassis contracts will also help bring the sport's biggest and best track back to the prominence and prestige it once held. Indianapolis used to be a proving ground for new road technologies, and a breeding ground for open-wheel innovation. Think of some of the cars used in the past 40 years, and how much change has occurred, both in aerodynamics and underneath the engine cowling. The changes have been massive, and part of it came from the less restrictive rules at Indianapolis.

Remember that during the CART era of the 1980s and 90s, the Indianapolis 500 was a USAC-sanctioned race in which CART decided to award points to its teams. Because the race was not run under CART sanctioning, and thus under Indianapolis 500-specific rules, teams had the ability to experiment a little more freely with their cars. Some of the most dominating performances in all of motorsport have come due to this provision.

In 1994, Team Penske, with drivers Al Unser Jr., Paul Tracy, and Emerson Fittipaldi, had one of the most dominating combinations in open-wheel history: the Penske PC-23 chassis and Ilmor-Mercedes Indy V8 engine. This combination allowed Penske to rip off a seven-race winning streak at one points in the 16-race season, and allowed the team to take 12 victories overall. Everybody knew that coming into Indy that year, the team to beat was going to be Team Penske, especially coming off of their win the previous year with Fittipaldi.

But Penske outdid themselves at Indy, bringing along a secretly-built 209 cid pushrod Mercedes engine, the 500I. Penske utilized rules provisions that allowed pushrod engines like John Menard's Buick V6 an extra 650 cubic centimeters and 4.9 psi of boost. For those of us who aren't engineers, it meant that the engine could produce 1000 horsepower, significantly more than Penske's competitors. The team went on to dominate the race.

Randy Bernard, CEO of IndyCar, has said that he wants to bring innovation back to the series. Bernard has also proven himself willing to make some huge decisions - awarding split oval and road course championships, attempting to implement bonuses next year of $10 million for series champions and $20 million for winning both Indy and NASCAR's Coca-Cola 600 on the same day, and so on.

What about opening up the field at Indianapolis to innovation once again?

In its heyday long ago, the Indianapolis 500 was so highly regarded that it counted in Formula 1 world championship points. That won't happen again, but the race can still go a long way towards attracting racing powerhouses from across the globe by opening up its engine formula and allowing multiple chassis manufacturers to build Indy racers.

In other words, by encouraging innovation and the competition of technologies, with the assumed goal of bringing what's learned on the racetrack back to the streets, Indianapolis can recapture the prestige it used to have, years and years ago. Because let's be honest: Indianapolis still matters, but it just isn't the same.

The key difference in racing nowadays, compared to years ago, is that what's running on the track nowadays has little or no correlation to the cars that we drive on the streets. Sure, IndyCar does a lot with ethanol, but how many of us currently have ethanol-based cars? And what does an eight-year-old Dallara chassis have to do with the aerodynamics of the vehicles that any of us drive?

The reason why sports car racing flourishes in its niche is because the developments made at Le Mans have street relevance. When Peugeot and Audi battle at Circuit de la Sarthe, they're not just racing for glory. They're in it because what they learn at the track will make their performance vehicles on the road that much better. The American Le Mans Series does a fantastic job, with its embrace of multiple fuels and the Michelin Green Challenge, which awards a championship to the most efficient team over the course of the year.

By loosening restrictions on competitors in the Indianapolis 500, the sport's most prestigious race, IndyCar can push its own "green" initiative even further, by encouraging participants to develop the fastest and most efficient cars they possibly can. Only cars that meet certain standards for efficiency can attempt to qualify; as usual, the fastest 33 race. Exclusive supplier contracts be damned - let them apply to every other race of the season but Indy, because years of spec 500s is beginning to grow old.

If Chip Ganassi and Bobby Rahal want to bring the BMW motors they run in sports car racing to Indy, by all means let them. See if Duncan Dayton's Highcroft Racing can run as well with Honda at Indianapolis as they do at Sebring and Laguna Seca. Manufacturers currently on the outside looking in would have a reason to care about Indy again, and so would fair-weather motorsports fans.

It'd be the biggest and best race in the world, if only we opened it up.

IndyCar Race Review: Firestone 550k

In Ryan Briscoe's first Texas race for Team Penske, in 2008, he started and finished third. In his second, last year, he started and finished second.

Briscoe continued his positive Texas trend in last night's Firestone 550k, leading 102 laps and opening up a big gap on a hard-charging Danica Patrick in the later stages for his first win of the 2010 IZOD IndyCar Series season. His victory helped make up for Penske's disappointing Indianapolis 500 last weekend, when Briscoe crashed and finished 24th, and teammates Will Power and Helio Castroneves barely cracked the top ten.

But that's not to say that the night was a complete success for Penske; Castroneves was taken out of the race just past halfway when Mario Moraes squeezed him into the wall. Power, who had been running third in the late stages of the race, had to give up his position to pit for fuel with four laps to go, falling to 14th, one lap down.

Instead, the top team overall in the Texas tilt was Andretti Autosport. Besides Patrick's second-place finish, Marco Andretti placed third for the second week in a row, and Tony Kanaan wound up sixth. Ryan Hunter-Reay, in his first race since having thumb surgery and potentially his last race for Andretti due to sponsorship reasons, placed seventh.

In between the Andretti cars were the two Chip Ganassi Racing teams of Scott Dixon and Dario Franchitti, respectively. Franchitti managed to lead 86 laps of the 228-lap race, but after losing his clean air was never quite the same.

Alex Tagliani and the FAZZT Race Team continued to show promise, but were once again bitten by bad luck. Tagliani led 33 laps, third most in the field, but a lap 167 pit stop in which fueler Phil McRobert did not remove the fuel hose before Tagliani put the car in gear altered the entire course of his race. Adding insult to injury, the team fell seven laps short on fuel and had to pit before the end of the race, falling three laps down and finishing 18th.

Texas was not generally kind to the series' six rookies. While Alex Lloyd and Dale Coyne Racing carried on their momentum from a fourth-place finish at Indy, crossing the line eighth, Lloyd was the only rookie driver to finish on the lead lap. Meanwhile, Mario Romancini was the only other rookie driver to finish, two laps down in 17th.

Three rookies - Bertrand Baguette, Simona de Silvestro, and Takuma Sato - were involved in crashes that prematurely ended their nights. De Silvestro had a particularly fiery crash in which safety crews struggled to remove her from her burning car. The last rookie, Jay Howard, experienced mechanical failure after 37 laps to finish last.

The next IZOD IndyCar Series race will be the Iowa Corn Indy 250 at Iowa Speedway in two weeks. Franchitti won last year.

Saturday, June 5, 2010

IndyCar Race Preview: Firestone 550k

Ryan Briscoe and Dario Franchitti will make up the front row for tonight's Firestone 550k at Texas Motor Speedway, and both drivers are looking to continue trends that would bring them to the winner's circle.

Since joining Team Penske, Briscoe started and finished third in the 2008 race, and started and finished second in 2009. His pole suggests that he might be able to continue that trend this year. Franchitti, meanwhile, will look to be the third Indianapolis 500 winner in a row to also triumph at Texas.

Penske and Chip Ganassi Racing-owned cars will, unsurprisingly, make up the top five starters, with Will Power (Penske), Scott Dixon (Ganassi), and Helio Castroneves (Penske) starting 3-4-5. Shocking, however, will be Alex Lloyd's sixth-place start for Dale Coyne Racing; it comes on the heels of his fourth-place start at Indy, and Milka Duno's shocking sixth-place run in Texas practice. (She'll start back in 17th, though.)

Lloyd is the highest qualifying rookie, with Takuma Sato next best in 11th. None of the other four rookies qualified inside the top 20 of the 26-car field.

Tomas Scheckter, replacing the injured Mike Conway in Dreyer & Reinbold Racing's No. 24 Dallara-Honda, qualified 18th. Scheckter led laps in last weekend's 500, as did two of the other three DRR drivers, only to fall to 15th and a lap down when the checkers waved. Scheckter hasn't been guaranteed the ride beyond this weekend, but a strong showing may keep him in the car; on three occasions he's led more than half of the Texas race, meaning he could be a threat for victory. In fact, Scheckter's most recent IndyCar win came at Texas in 2005, when he drove for Panther Racing.

With two oval races completed, the Ganassi cars of Franchitti and Dixon lead the oval points, followed by Castroneves, Dan Wheldon of Panther Racing, Tony Kanaan and Marco Andretti of Andretti Autosport, Power, Alex Tagliani of FAZZT Race Team, Briscoe, and Danica Patrick. Wheldon and Patrick are separated by only eight points, but from there the gap widens; Castroneves is 10 ahead of Wheldon with 69, Dixon is 22 ahead of Castroneves with 91, and Franchitti is 13 ahead of Dixon with 104, bolstered by a 64-point Indy 500.

Friday, June 4, 2010

This Week in IndyCar: June 4, 2010

A collection of news clippings from around the IZOD IndyCar Series over the past few days:

- The Baltimore Grand Prix, which had long been rumored to join the IndyCar schedule for next year, will become a reality in 2011 and beyond. The August 5-7 event will take place on a temporary street circuit that passes by Camden Yards, home of the Baltimore Orioles, and runs through Baltimore's Inner Harbor. The circuit also runs close to M&T Bank Stadium, home of the Baltimore Ravens.

The city's contract with IndyCar guarantees at least five years of the event, which has been designed as an east coast alternative to the always popular Grand Prix of Long Beach.

- Mike Conway's loss is Tomas Scheckter's gain, at least temporarily. While Conway will lose at least three months of his IndyCar season after his spectacular wreck at the Indianapolis 500, Scheckter will gain a ride, at least temporarily. He will fill in for Conway in the No. 24 Dreyer & Reinbold Racing Dallara-Honda in this weekend's Firestone 550k at Texas Motor Speedway, and possibly beyond.

Scheckter was the natural choice for the team to fill in, as he drove a third entry for them in this year's Indianapolis 500, even managing to lead a handful of laps. Scheckter's record at Texas has been spotty, but he has shown flashes of brilliance, winning the pole in his first two starts there and leading over 100 laps in each race before mechanical failures ended his days. Scheckter did, however, win the 2005 Texas race after leading 119 of 200 laps. It was his last IndyCar win to date.

- A handful of drivers will be running different paint schemes in this weekend's Firestone 550k. Scheckter will be running a Roll Coater scheme on his No. 24 Dallara-Honda, which will be black instead of the normal blue that the car carries when Dad's Root Beer adorns the sidepods. Dario Franchitti, fresh off his Indy 500 triumph, will run a red and black Energizer scheme on his No. 10 Dallara-Honda. Finally, Alex Lloyd will again run the BSA 2010 scheme on his No. 19 Dallara-Honda, celebrating 100 years of the Boy Scouts of America.